Darwin & The Dangerous Idea

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By Mark Lundegren

I’d like to introduce you to an important, though not-so-new book you may have missed – I had until recently.  This book tells a broad and provocative story about the world we live in, and that lives in us.  Contained in this storyline is a new way of thinking about our world, one that to many people is inspiring and to others is, well, dangerous. 

The book I am introducing is Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, by Daniel Dennett.  As I said, though first published in 1996, I found the book only recently but wish I had read it sooner, so revolutionary and perspective changing are its many ideas.  And I say this as someone who was fairly well-acquainted with Darwin, before coming to Dennett.

Whether you know Darwin and evolutionary theory well or not, I’d encourage you to learn about Dennett’s not-so-new and not-so-little book, now that you’ve found it through me.  I say this with special emphasis if you are a thinking person, one with some stamina and one who is not afraid of some danger.

The Dangerous Idea

As I mentioned, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea has been available for some time, but is a work that will remain vibrant and timely for many years to come – owing both to its topic, and its ambitious scope and notable depth.  In the Dangerous Idea, Dennett offers a thorough survey of evolutionary thinking during and since Darwin’s time, and then a careful outline of the many important implications of this still new way of thinking for people everywhere.

I should add that Dennett’s ambitious book is more dangerous than it might be in other hands, owing principally to the fact that Dennett is a philosopher, and a thorough and rigorous one at that, rather than a biologist focused on the progression of flora and fauna.  As one discovers, again and again, during the course of the book, putting Darwin’s “dangerous idea” in the hands of a careful and probing philosopher is much like putting a powerful new navigation aid in the hands of a skilled adventurer. 

The result is as one might expect: a series of remarkable excursions and discoveries that penetrate more deeply into the still barely known world around us, and into the world within us, presented with a satisfying balance of eagerness and precision.  The full effect of Dennett’s book is an unexpected exploration and exploding of important ideas, new and old.  In the hands of Dennett, the Darwinian compass is indeed a dangerous and far-reaching catalyst.

If you are willing to stay with Dennett for the full length of his journey, you may be surprised at its adventures and distance traveled.  Philosophically, we are left with nothing less than the sky above us shattered, and everything that was once sacred and hanging from it at our feet, littering and rattling against the earth, which now is suddenly at once more steady and ancient, but fresh and sprouting and uncertain too.  Is this a much too dangerous prospect for you?  I suspect that some adventurous souls will read a chapter or two of Dennett and say, yes.  And while they may choose to turn from the dangerous idea, they may find that even they must look at the world with changed eyes.

Since we are the topic of finishing this book, I should make clear, that while Dennett’s book is intended for the general, educated reader, it is not an easy book.  It is simultaneously dense and weighty, and rigorous and inspired.  And it is as deep as it is far-reaching and ambitious.  Dennett’s pages spill over with an examination of bold and controversial ideas, revolutionary perspectives on evolution and life, and fundamentally new metaphors for understanding the natural and human world around and within us, all written with a thoroughness that requires attentive reading. 

It took me several weeks of persistent effort to give Dennett’s book a careful and considered read, and having read it carefully, I can say that it was deserving of this care.  I am thankful I was considerate with his book, even if I had early doubts and was tempted to turn to an easier and more predictable treatment of the topic.

I will also say that I finished The Dangerous Idea a somewhat different person from the experience, feeling strangely larger and smaller at the same time, with a changed perspective on the world and a sense that I am permanently affected, or infected, by the many mind and mood-altering ideas in Dennett’s book.  Could I offer a higher compliment to any author on any topic, or a more tempting invitation to personal danger?

Entering the Danger Zone

Other reviewers have called Darwin’s Dangerous Idea one of the best expositions of the science and implications of Darwin and modern evolutionary theory ever written.  Though not my area of expertise, I suspect it is just this and will be still more than this for many readers, as it was for me, so impressive and sweeping in scope is Dennett’s book.

Dennett begins with the world before Darwin, and with the pervasive dualism between mind and matter that existed in the thoughts and hearts of people throughout most of our civilized history.  Even in the writings of Locke and Hume, leading thinkers writing only a hundred years before Darwin, it seemed to them impossible that mind could come from anywhere but above and beyond, from a separate, lordly realm apart from the physical world.  In retrospect, this once unshakable bias seems remarkable today and is a lesson for us all.

Darwin of course showed that mind could indeed evolve from matter, and that it was even highly likely this was the case.  He came to this revolutionary conclusion through a striking and strikingly simple insight into natural life, even as Darwin himself struggled with the implications of his insight.  This new world view is one we are all now acquainted with as modern people, to varying degrees and whether we embrace it or not.  It is thus easy to forget the revolution that Darwin’s idea was only several decades ago, and to be unaware of its many and rapidly growing implications.

Dennett leaves us wondering early in the book: how could earlier people not have seen or taken seriously the possibility of mind evolving from matter?  What are we similarly not seeing or taking seriously today that future generations may know as true?  And why do so many intelligent people among us today have such difficulty coming to grips with Darwin’s simple idea, even as his theory matures and is supported by an increasing heavy weight of evidence?  In other words, why is Darwin’s simple idea so complicated, and so dangerous?

One answer to this last question is of course that people often have exaggerated fears about the unknown.  We may be genuinely afraid of the implications of Darwin’s idea, afraid that the implications are in fact dangerous to society and our world within it.  Perhaps we fear it is still too dangerous for others to embrace, or to admit we accept Darwin’s proposal in polite society.  As Dennett asks, and as we should ask, is evolutionary thinking a universal acid, likely to destroy everything we hold as valuable, and leave us nothing in return?  Put another way, is there enough in Darwin’s idea to assure us that there will at least be a toehold to begin again with, to reach up and rebuild our culture with in the light of the destructive aspects of the idea?

More questions, I know, but Dennett assures us early on that Darwin need not lead to chaos and nihilism, that culture can survive and even thrive in new ways after Darwin, and that philosophy and ethics can be made more unified, re-grounded and re-naturalized, and truer and better by Darwin.  But before he can explain why this is so, he first ensures we know Darwin’s idea and modern evolutionary thinking thoroughly, including the many controversies it inspires in our time from within and without.  It is this prerequisite to a discussion of post-Darwinian human culture and ethics that is the main body, and the largest and most important part, of Dennett’s brilliant book.

The Evolution of Evolution

As you may know or suspect already, evolutionary theory is much changed in the more than one hundred years since Darwin’s theory of natural selection first came to prominence, but its core idea and principal tenets are still firmly and now probably permanently in place.  Darwin proposed that life emerged and developed through a long process of iteration, of nature and then life building on itself:  complex molecules emerging from simple ones, simple life from complex molecules, complex life from simpler living entities, and finally humans and human culture from complex animal life.  The primary mechanism of this evolution from the simple to the complex was mutation (random variation) and selection (proliferation of variations with relative advantage in the game of proliferation).  Darwin theorized all this, Dennett reminds us, even though he had no understanding of modern genetics or microbiology in his day.

Darwin’s frequently assaulted but firmly intact core idea, Dennett explains, is only part of the story of the development of evolutionary theory since Darwin.  Dennett suggests we think of Darwin’s core idea as the imperturbable calm at the center of an enormous storm – an apt metaphor given its spiraling controversy – with the majority of evolutionary theory’s own evolution since Darwin lying out in the swirling, undulating arms turning round this unmoving core. 

Through a careful, even painstaking, journey into the storm of evolutionary thinking since Darwin, Dennett makes clear that Darwin’s central idea has not been diminished or narrowed in any way.  Indeed, the many controversies around Darwin’s core tenets have made his basic theory stronger and more proven, better articulated, larger and more encompassing, and even more subtly and carefully espoused, all in similar measure and combining to elevate the core idea.

Using an implicitly Darwinian form of reasoning, Dennett suggests that the strengthening and extension of Darwin’s hypothesis through its popular and scientific controversies – its success and survivability amidst environmental pressures – is deeply suggestive of the correctness of its core and the strong conceptual legs Darwin’s idea likely has to thrive and proliferate over time.  Evolutionary theory’s resiliency against attack has been impressive to date, as Dennett catalogs and explains.  The idea’s increasing, rather than decreasing, strength even points at its completeness and soundness as the foundation for a new, unified, and scientifically based theory of life.

Assaults on the theory of evolution have generally contended that the idea fails to adequately explain the nature of all things in an integrated way.  These assaults have come from theologians, from scientists of higher and lower caliber, and from others fascinated with or fearful of the dangerous idea itself.  Dennett reviews in detail the most important of these assaults, showing how and why they have failed to unseat evolutionary thinking, and even how they generally have worked to strengthen Darwin’s idea by forcing a more careful articulation of evolution’s inner workings.

Evolution, for Dennett and others working with in science and philosophy today, can be thought of simply, and productively, as a means to explore a particular design or possibility space.  This exploration may not be thoughtful and efficient per se, but it is a reliable and robust approach in a world where time is nearly limitless or where time can be compressed with computers or engineered life.  Dennett shows how we can see this process of exploration play out in the natural world, in computer-simulated worlds, in the creation of human artifacts and culture, and in the development of human science and thought. 

As an explorative and iterative process, all evolution is subject to certain design opportunities and constraints.  Much of evolutionary science today, in fact, is concerned with understanding the basic opportunities and constraints that exist in any design or possibility space, including nature, and perhaps improving on them.  As these tenets of evolution are discovered and validated, they combine to form the full emerging science of evolutionary dynamics and the dominant new material of philosophy in our time.

We know already, for example, that each design choice opens and closes doors, and that all evolutionary processes and creations have inherent and similar forms of order in them.  Evolution in design space is not a completely random process, even though evolution certainly uses randomness to move about in its explorations of what is possible.  This idea of implicit order amidst randomness and common to all evolutions foreshadows the possibility of the new cultural toeholds I mentioned.  In truth, they actually may form sure footholds and perhaps strong and lasting rock to build on and with in the changed new world after Darwin.

Culture’s Evolution

As Darwin’s original idea has strengthened and grown more complex, it has become a source of learning and inspiration for many, and an increasingly troublesome specter for others.  Dennett explores these both perspectives on Darwin and the prospect of further evolution and proliferation of evolutionary thinking, returning to his earlier question: Is Darwin’s idea a universal acid, one that will dissolve all we hold dear and leave nothing in its aftermath? 

The last part of Dennett’s book considers how an evolutionary worldview, and evolutionary processes themselves, might create new social order and human understanding – building on, transforming, and not just destroying the world and worldviews before Darwin.  I expect some people will be unmoved by Dennett patient reasoning and discussion of alternatives, in part because they might not read him carefully enough and, for those that do, because Dennett’s suggested path is still a theoretical one, implicitly and ironically involving a leap of faith of sorts, even if this faith is well-considered. 

This new leap before us involves a faith in the findings of science, including its findings about our human nature and nature’s tendencies toward evolutions and organization.  We are asked to move toward our humanity and to trust ourselves and the visible world, letting go of external and unseen divinity, and this is perhaps what may be most troubling to those that are most troubled by Darwin.  We are called to consider nature’s and our own innate ability to organize and evolve society, without help from above.  Here, I might suggest, no doubt unconvincingly for some, that divinity and humanity may be the same thing, twice named.

Other reviewers have criticized Dennett for not articulating a post-Darwinian system of ethics and culture deeply enough, particularly on par with the rest of the rich work that is the Dangerous Idea.  I too wanted more than he offers us in this area.  But I suspect this fault with the book may have more to do with the newness and breadth of the topic of the natural formation of culture than Dennett’s handling of it.  People may want Dennett to work with clay that has been found but not yet readied for the potter’s wheel, or I should say the philosopher’s.

Many of us will insist on a clear new system of culture and ethics, based on evolutionary theory, before they agree to move in Dennett’s direction.  This may be wise, or it simply may just be procrastination.  After all, what are the chances that a new, post-Darwinian system of culture will appear whole and fully clothed, at any time, and be acceptable to people resisting Darwin and who view the idea as dangerous today? In truth, like all living things, culture evolves and is in transition.  We will never reach a point where a final cultura firma rises up under foot and allows us to step to new and more open life, without the requirement of movement. 

In my own work, to get around the impasse of such all or none thinking about the future, I have proposed we think about our culture and needed change practically and incrementally.  My suggestion is to pursue those aspects of life today that most directly and obviously promote our health, in its fullest sense to include our survival and adaptiveness, and to make those changes in our lives and society that most directly progress us toward this goal. These tasks are entirely in and for our time, admittedly with an eye to the future, but leaving a similar charge to each successive generation.  While arguably a heuristic, the approach re-focuses us our own optimization and our responsibility for it, employs evolutionary method and successive iteration, and is tolerant of our inability to know the distant future and the inevitability of error in every generation.  The net effect is to permit us to explore our optimality, individually and collectively, in the ever changing design space that is time.

Unless we are reborn into a wiser epoch, most of us will have little choice but to leap at some point on faith and instinct into the world after Darwin, in the spirit of our health and humanity, or with some other aim in mind.  We will have to do this at least to influence what is pursued and created in our time and for the future by our existing culture.  In truth, the emerging word we may fear is already with us, however immature and whether we care to look at it or not, and alongside the familiar and slowly aging remnants of the pre-Darwinian world. 

As Dennett reminds us, our human culture is like the natural world that contains it, inevitably and ever evolving in possibility space, ever closing and opening doors to us in the world, and never stopping sufficiently to let the most prudent of us take in its full scope.  I suspect the next age and future human cultures will most resemble and be influenced by those of us today whose leap to the future is most timely and those who are most adept in our leaps.

Dennett finishes his book by summarizing new (in 1996) and quite important ideas about how the human mind and our human culture can be conceived of as evolutionary processes in themselves.  The new Darwinians see changing human thought as an obvious and unique form of evolution, one that marks a significant break from our purely organic origins in the natural world – and one that is related to but distinct from the evolution of our physical brains.  In a sense, they suggest that we may already be divine, if divine means to be able to absorb and transmit culture and ideas, and to select and sustain what is best in us into the future.

From this emerging perspective and adaption of the idea, the principles and workings of society, and even our individual psyches, can be seen as the ongoing products of the same evolutions that have made and are remaking the rest of the living world around us.  As an analog to genetic mutation and selection, Dennett introduces us to memes (discrete thoughts and ideas), a new paradigm that evolutionary theorists now use widely to explain and model the evolution of our minds and cultures.  In doing this, they may be unexpectedly moving us closer to a deeper understanding of the path to a post-Darwinian world and culture that so many want.

If we all live in cultures and inhabit minds that were formed by evolution and are subject to continual selection forces – in this case via meme (thought) rather than gene mutation and selection – do we really have as much to fear from evolutionary thinking and the prospect of culture allowed to evolve based on Darwin’s idea?  And do we actually owe so much to and must we regard as inviolate those cultures that came before us? Perhaps not, if we begin to view our pre-Darwinian cultures and outlooks as earlier facts of evolution, including their frequent use of the idea of external divinity and their curious inhibition of worldviews without duality (an idea which troubled even Darwin).  I suspect that many will remain cautious in the face of this new thinking, but really what is the ground upon which we all stand? 

Paradoxically, Dennett points out that it is precisely this common stance of principled cautiousness which modern Darwinians predict to emerge as a design feature within an evolving system of culture and cognition.  After all, individuals in our society, or in any society of semi-autonomous entities, all benefit from cooperation but must guard against harmful actors and ideas in their interdependent world.  Doesn’t a cautious mindset (a cautious meme-set) promote just this individual and cultural stance?  And if this phenomenon is predictable, even all-too-predicable, isn’t it thus ultimately indefensible in any particular guise, especially as functional and more beneficial equivalents emerge or are created in the name of progress?

These and other important questions are the now fertile soil of new wave of post-Darwinian science and philosophy.  We are right to expect and demand much from their practitioners and proponents, especially if this movement is to guide future human thought and culture.  But perhaps we are equally right to expect that sound, functional, and even improved and healthier new systems of culture will naturally emerge from Darwin’s idea (sandwiched as it was between Copernicus’ and Freud’s dangerous ideas, neither of which undid us) in an iterative, automatic, and natural way.  Culture has arguably always formed this way and is now proving highly adaptive to modernity’s many unprecedented onslaughts.

This idea, culture and thought as an evolved artifacts, embodies Dennett’s final and, for me, quite compelling formulation:  that culture and ethics have always evolved and will continue to evolve from what came before the selection forces – extending our human lineage and building on our already existent humanity.  In this sense, our principal future challenge is to work practically with the unique and perennial opportunities and constraints waiting for us in the rich design spaces that are our world, our culture, and our psyches today.  In other words, the theorizing must end, and compelling work aimed at progress can and should ensue.

The greatest threat to human growth, to the evolution of our culture and selves, Dennett notes in closing his book, is fundamentalism, the shutting off of inquiry and the slowing of human movement in new forms and directions.  Absent such an inhibition of inquiry, Dennett believes we are right to expect robust, evolving systems of human and humane culture to continue in the face of Darwin’s idea.  We should of course expect the most successful aspects of these systems to eventually stand on their own, to grow stronger and longer legs, to naturally nurture and be nurtured by us, and to meet our physical and spiritual needs as people.  But now, all this must occur without the easy, but newly untenable, cheat of handrails from the sky.

Such wide-ranging musings and ideas come from Darwin’s, or should I say Dennett’s, Dangerous Idea.  It you have the strength and curiosity, I encourage you to explore this long-legged work and provocative place in design space, and to see what possibilities it engenders for you.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.

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Nature’s Three Imperatives

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By Mark Lundegren

Would it come as a surprise if I suggested that our requirements for happiness, and joy and fulfillment in our individual lives, are precisely those that ensure our natural health, including the health of the communities we live in?

After all, didn’t the first set of requirements, for our personal happiness, evolve concurrently in nature with the second, with our needs for individual and collective health?  Imagine the prehistoric that survives against the challenges of nature but is unhappy in this survival.  While perhaps a phenomenon in life today, our best science suggests this was at least an exception, and even an impossibility on any scale, during our time in wild nature.

Many today may argue that our needs and requirements for happiness have changed since natural times and that the pursuit of our natural health can no longer reliably and fully satisfy us.  On reflection, and looking at contemporary research on human satisfaction, I believe there is little reason to think this way, to think that the ancient link between our health and happiness has been severed by modernity.  Indeed, our best science suggests that when we turn from implicit conditions of our natural health, we greatly lower our feelings of well-being and fulfillment too.

In our times, with people still generally unaware of our opportunity for natural health, we often live in ways that do not make use of this strong link between our natural health and personal happiness.  Our modern bias is to think of happiness and fulfillment as unique and highly individualized states, even as ones demanding extraordinary freedom and resources to attain.  We thus often view our happiness as inhibited and our fulfillment impinged by the requirements and regular demands of our health.  Again, there is little fact or reason to support this pervasive view, even as it is actively and perhaps circularly reinforced by our commercial society and mass media today. 

Today, we are encouraged to act in ways contrary to our natural health and fulfillment, paradoxically often in the name of our happiness and contentment – to buy, to indulge, to seek comfort, to entertain ourselves with ourselves, to pursue and possess more, to display our possessing to our neighbors ,.  And yet, this formula never fully succeeds in making us happy, at least for long or without more encouragement and the use for more resources.  In parallel to this common trend of our time, if we are attentive, we can find curious examples of people who are naturally healthy and happy, by design or chance.  Such people do not follow the general trend and yet are often quite fulfilled, and often with far less freedom and resources than us (as people once did in wild nature).  In our haste, we are apt to discount these live examples of natural human joy, of an alternative and more natural human living, as oddities and non-conforming, and thus continue in our conforming ways.

The common perspective of our time may see life satisfaction as resting on a tentative and transient foundation, even as operating without discernable logic or process.  Or the reverse – we may have a greatly simplified and narrowed outlook on our happiness, seeing it as dependent on our attainment of particular objects or stations in our society and culture.  These are both unexamined and extreme views, even as they are pervasive and emotionally compelling to many people today.  We know, after all, that the form of our subjective self was selected to have specific attributes and that it has specific needs, arising out of our long evolution and persistent natural conditions as a species.  Through studies of contemporary Paleolithic people, we also know that happiness was our natural state, attained through a natural life in human community and closeness with the environment, without possessions or special status, and even as our life was harder and far less free than today.

Our personal needs and feelings are thus never the result of our personal birth and circumstances in the first case, but always of countless births and circumstances occurring before our own.  Our needs and feelings are first human and universal to all people, even as they are influenced by our culture and individualized in us.  Our birth and life circumstances are wisely viewed amidst nature and against the backdrop of our human past.  This natural past includes the often arduous demands of human life and health in nature, and the natural imperative of joyful and motivating individual and community life amidst these demands of nature.  With our quite specific and resulting human nature – which includes intelligence, curiosity, and adaptability – we can and must make our way in our individual circumstances today, creating optimal health and well-being in our life and times, given our original nature.

If we fail to make this connection between our natural health and happiness – admittedly established through recent but now well known advances in human science – we often try again and again in the relative freedom and prosperity of modern society to seek and see our happiness as we once did in pre-modern society.  By this I mean apart from our naturalness and indifferent to the requirements of our evolved human nature and natural health.  Though we may not intend it, this recurring modern view implies that we are somehow not human and not of nature (rather than strictly human and strictly of nature).  Popular and seemingly new ideas about our happiness and ourselves often hearken back to and simply recast medieval thinking in many cultures, telling us we are spirits, apparitions or metaphysical entities, passing through the natural world, but not of it.  Nothing of course could be further from the truth.  Our life, health, and happiness all lie in the natural world.

We can see this common tendency to view life unnaturally, to see our health and happiness separately, in the everyday lives of people around us each of us.  We can see it in the heavy choice of excessive work and striving, in the superficiality and suppressed emotions of our times, and in our response to this new world – a gradual retreat into comfortable isolation.  We can see this separation of natural life and happiness just as plainly in the proposals of people in public and intellectual life, who should know better and may, but perhaps only in an intellectual sense and not in the life-altering way that is possible.  In both cases, we can watch the inevitable consequences of this unnatural disconnection of human health and happiness:  the inescapable fact that human unhappiness persists and even increases, despite increasing freedom and comfort, wherever and to the extent our natural requirements for health and well-being are neglected or misinterpreted.

Instructively, our common inclination today to see happiness apart from our health is an error we are far less likely to commit when we consider or are tasked with ensuring the well-being of other species.  When we think about pets, livestock, and even wild animals in our care or circle of influence, it is nearly a universal and intuitive truth that we consider and provide for the animal’s health, first and foremost, and assume that happiness will naturally follow and in direct proportion to the degree the animal’s natural health is promoted.  We are typically and rightly perplexed when the healthy animal is also not a happy animal.  And when we see an unhappy animal, our first thoughts often are to those circumstances that keep it from its own natural life.

Because of our own historical legacy and active selection forces at work within our culture today, we make an extraordinary and generally unappreciated exception when our concern is for the human species, and for the human animal in our care.  We commonly begin from the archaic assumption that we are not animals in some way and can act with relative disregard to our natural needs and still achieve a happy result.  Often imbedded in this approach is the idea that it is not noble to be an animal, or to live naturally as people.  The result of this special exception, for us and our well-being, is significant and often disastrous.  Our tendency to see our happiness apart from our health inhibits and even precludes our ability to understand fully our natural condition, our condition as it is in the world today, and how we might create new and improved conditions in society today, conditions far more supportive of our health and happiness.

Though it is admittedly a new truth in our time, owing to the advance of science and society since medieval poverty and its ideologies for and against wealth, the truth still is that the link between our happiness and the mastery of our health is an indissoluble one, and one that must be better understood if we are to be happy today.  This natural link operates without regard to time and place, class or level of prosperity, or the growing extent of our freedom and life options.  Indeed, research already suggests that the acuteness of human suffering today, amidst our unprecedented wealth and freedom, is fostered or exacerbated by the unnatural expectations and aims that excessive and unwisely directed wealth and power create for us all, in individual and collective life.  We are all well advised to examine the fulfilled people in the world today.  They come from remarkably diverse walks of life, have no common station or circumstance, though they rarely live far from their health.  This must be an overarching lesson for us all, in these modern and unprecedented times of ours.

If you can accept or at least entertain these perhaps new and unfamiliar ideas – especially that our happiness and health are part of the same natural phenomenon, that this phenomenon is understandable and accessible to us through science, and even that only modest resources are required for both our health and happiness – a next step immediately presents itself.  This step is to ask what lessons our natural life and health hold for us today, to ensure and even increase our happiness and fulfillment, in modern times and in all times.  For the curious and adaptable mind, this line of inquiry proves quite fruitful and yields many important lessons for our lives.

One immediate lesson, which is our focus today, is that nature presents three personal imperatives to us all, each crucial to understanding and attaining our natural health – and equally to achieving natural human joy and fulfillment. 

Our First Imperative: Self-Reliance (Individual Health)

Nature’s first imperative for human happiness and fulfillment is self-reliance, our ability to secure and maintain the basic conditions and capabilities that enable our individual health and well-being.  We must first and obviously ensure we are able in our person to meet our central physiological and psychological needs – from air and natural food to goal setting and self-directedness – and thereby achieve a level of autonomous life comparable to other adult organisms in nature, even if our life is broader and more complex.

We see this imperative of self-reliance almost fully expressed in the instincts of very young children.  Their self-absorption and selfishness, in all its many expressions, is a certain and primordial sign of our natural impulse to health.  Consider the young child’s initial compulsions, whether conscious or unconscious: to find protection and food, to have space to move in, to have physical mastery of self and surroundings, to find intellectual and emotional stimulation, to decide and to act on decisions, to create, and even to compete. 

Where a child lacks one or more of these basic human impulses, we naturally feel that something is amiss and worry that the essential preconditions for personal well-being and a happy life are not present.  We might rightly worry that the child may have health problems, and that she or he may be in long-term jeopardy and potentially unable to function properly and autonomously as an adult. 

On the other hand, we should and frequently do delight in both the bold obstinacy of the two-year old and the precociousness of the four-year old.  Their immature and often immodest instincts, first for self-determination and the removal of obstacles and then for self-expression and the removal of obstacles in new ways, through reasoning and the influence of others, are a reassuring signal of young health and offer the promise of a self-reliant adult life.

If this is our early and natural course as people, we should think it strange and decidedly unnatural when we find examples of dependent adult life.   And yet we do find dependent adults quite commonly, lacking in one or more dimensions of our natural self-reliance, both in society today and in the history of earlier human civilization.  What is not surprising is that the dependent adult life of our time is normally marked by low levels of health, and poor health’s familiar siblings: unease, unhappiness, cynicism, contempt, even self-contempt, fear and its close twin, aggression, and another strange pair, apathy and impulsiveness, both born from the absence of natural goals and motivation.  However dependency may be manifested in the lives and outlook of people, it is a sign of a reduced and unnatural condition, of lower human health and well-being.

In our quest to make our communities and global society healthier and happier, we need to understand the adult conditions of dependency we see, especially as they may be far less numerous in cause than case, and thus ultimately preventable.  Perhaps some of this dependency was evident early in life, although observations of very young children make it seem unlikely that there are a sufficient number of unhealthy infants to account for the many cases of adult dependency, and that this is the center of causation.  Far more likely, and as suggested in research already done, a majority of adult dependency is the result of specific events or dependant adaptations that occurred in young or middle childhood, or even as late as young adult life in some cases. 

Adult dependency is quite often the result of childhood abuse and a low quality family environment, specific childhood trauma, drug use in or around the family, or a hostile and unsupportive environment outside of the family itself.  Where specific factors such as these cannot be identified, we might look to see if there has been a more general decline in the individual’s health over time, particularly when dependency sets in well into adult life, and thereby suspect that essential conditions for natural health have been consistently unmet in one or more ways.  Importantly for our discussion, in each case of adult dependency and regardless of what interventions they suggest, we see the first natural imperative of self-reliance unmet.  We are apt to see such cases as an individual condition, but because of their high numbers, can and should be reframed as a social trend of reduced natural happiness and well-being, a trend linked through one or more mechanisms to conditions of reduced health.

Our compassion naturally does and should go out to the dependent among us.  We feel empathy and sorrow for the chaos and hardship in their lives, for their lack of natural health, in other words.  In our quest to understand and reduce this adult dependency, however, we should also ask what our hearts ultimately go out to.  To be truthful, it is often conditions of underdeveloped and unhealthy human life, forms of human life we would not encounter in nature and that are also likely unable to meet nature’s other two imperatives for our health and happiness.  I say this not to criticize the dependent among us, but as a larger critique of our society and its broad patterns of conduct today, conduct that is often in ways clearly contrary to our health and the findings of contemporary science.

In this discussion, I have proposed that our natural self-reliance can be impinged sometimes by specific environmental trauma or influences.  I have also suggested that self-reliance can be compromised by poor general health practices compounding over time, even practices arising amidst autonomous individual and family life.  Both scenarios suggest limits to the power of self-reliance and an incompleteness to the imperative of autonomous life.  Even with autonomy, we may misunderstand specific needs for health or may use our autonomy in ways that actively harm ourselves or others, leading to dependent adult life.  These facts underscore our need for knowledge and support beyond ourselves and the immediacy of our lives – of the importance of life in and in support of cooperative community, which is our next imperative for natural health and happiness.

Our Second Imperative: Cooperation (Community Health)

It has been said before that none of us is an island.  If humans are naturally animals, then we are naturally social animals, and highly communicative and cooperative animals at that, each of us inseparable from and enlarged by those around us.  In the immediacy and seeming autonomy of adult life today, ironically most especially in the myopia of young adult life, it is easy to forget that all of us were nurtured extensively as children, literally for years, to become autonomous and self-reliant adults.  It is only through the fact of this extensive nurturing that we are able to achieve the natural and autonomous adult life we enjoy and may naively assume is our own creation. 

We are inevitably interdependent with (as opposed to dependent on) others for our individual life and for true human life in any real sense of this term.  Interdependence is how we all obtain our sustenance, learn about the world and ourselves, experience new perspectives and enrich our lives, and respond to challenges in the environment greater than us individually.  Our second natural imperative of cooperation develops in us throughout childhood and even long into adulthood in many cultures.  It is our natural instinct to create and maintain human groups and human communities.  As such, it is an instinct to create human life in a way that is not possible individually and on our own, a life of relationships, a truly humane life – whole, complete, and larger as a consequence of our shared lives.

Our instinct towards community is of course notably pronounced in the strong and often unconscious conformity and peer-absorption of older children and young adolescents.  Here, we see, often emphatically expressed, our natural human need to participate in and benefit from tribe, to find our place in our time and generation, to give and receive in turn.  Fortunately, for adolescents and all around them, this often overwhelming phase naturally passes or matures, but the lifelong imperative of interdependence that it highlights is never diminished.  Interdependence, in fact, is always an integral part of natural adult life. 

This natural pattern of growth and maturing awareness of our need for interdependence is not always reflected in the imperatives and norms of our contemporary society.  Perhaps never more than today, driven by the leverage of modern technology and new industrial wealth, the immature adult delusion and romanticism of personal independence seems to have infected the minds and hearts of many people among us today – holding so many of us in odd and perpetual variations on late adolescence.  Wherever this immaturity dominates, wherever individuality becomes pronounced and severe, and where cooperation and community health is lacking, just as in the case of the loss of autonomy, individual life is far poorer and less healthy, and less happy.  This is true even amidst affluence and unprecedented freedom. We can of course all see examples of wealthy, selfish, and disaffected people around us.

Given our natural imperative for interdependence and community, our unambiguous need to contribute to and receive from others, it is extraordinary to examine or revisit the excesses of individualism around us today, the pervasive indifference both toward and by communities in our time.  And again to find this life unsurprisingly neither happy nor healthy.  Whether such extreme individualism is expressed as a general antipathy toward others, in guarded and unexpressive personalities, as a stark indifference or hostility to society, by the unchecked presence of aggressive and exploitive personalities in our communities, through the unabashed self-aggrandizement of media celebrities, or in the laissez-faire attitude of our political leaders (all various forms of sociopathy), we see another important and unmet imperative of nature, our human nature, and our natural health. 

In this pattern of excessive individualism, we also see compromised human health and community imbalance in an especially dangerous form, one that is not unique to modernity and whose consequences have been clear and predictable throughout our long cross-cultural history – the weakening of communities and a reduction in the quality of individual life.  This condition of hyper-autonomy, entirely perceptual but with tangible consequence in the world, is as if a difficult phase of self-centeredness has failed to pass and now extends unnaturally throughout all our adult years. 

Particularly troublesome and unhealthy, our broad pattern of modern individualism, under the guise of classical liberalism, has even shaped itself into a persistent and intransigent modern ideology that exists in our time with great strength, one paradoxically seeking the general undoing of public life.  Its seemingly virile and decidedly uncompromising views of the world are quite seductive to many, even if its foundations are increasingly undermined by the findings of science, and as their social and industrial policies produce increasingly less fulfilling life for us all.  We should thus be emboldened to call for a resurgence of the imperative of interdependence and healthy community.

As was the case with people lacking autonomy, our compassion must also extend to individuals lost in immature and myopic individualism, to those among us who cannot see or do not have concern for the effects of their actions on others, and who cannot rise to meet the second imperative of our human nature – cooperation.  After all, many individualists are the iterative product of weakened communities, ones that no longer adequately prepared their members for mature and healthy adult life.  But this time, it is even more essential that we ask what our hearts go to.  Unlike dependent people, we do not have the luxury of indifference people who have power or advanced technology, and are indifferent or hostile to us.  In truth, there is real risk that they may harm us with their immaturity and excesses, as has been done in the past when individualism was left unchecked by wisdom and forcible constraint.  We may be left harmed, even as they are left unchanged – and unhappy and unhealthy.

Faced with unrepentant and thoughtless individualism, we may, must, and often already do demand community health.  We can and must compel a curbing of the excesses of underdeveloped and overly individualistic people, especially in the cases of people, behaviors, and groups that are clear risks to social harmony and the most basic dimensions collective health and well-being: our safety, the environment, our food supply, and our freedom of assembly and movement.  Naturally, in the strict sense of this word, we must exercise care in the process of asserting community and social health over even immature and potentially harmful people, so as not to exceed reasonable, prudent, and healthy limits on individual freedom and expression. 

Increasingly, though, in our ever more complex, globalized, and interlinked world, we must now say no, and say no more firmly and frequently, to those among us who have not learned or who disregard the natural imperative of cooperation and community health.  This can be in the obvious cases of the polluter, the exploiter, the criminal, the aggressor, and the fanatic.  But needed action may also be in new and more subtle domains of excessive individuality as well, ones that compromise our collective health and threaten others committed to cooperative and healthy life: the crass commercialist, the insipid apologist, and the unenlightened plutocrat.

In our discussion of the imperative of community, I have suggested a strong need to better curb excessive and dangerous forms of individualism in our new environment of advanced industrial society, in the interests of our health and general happiness.  I have also suggested that communities can become weakened or otherwise fail to optimally foster our health and happiness, potentially curtailing both autonomy and cooperation, in a downward spiral of declining health and well-being. 

Both challenges suggest innate and quite specific natural requirements for individuals, communities, and our global society.  One is that we define carefully the responsibilities and limits of individual and collective action, in our quest to promote and maintain both healthy autonomy and interdependence.  The other requirement is that individuals and communities must actively pursue their present and future health.  Both must commit to being vibrant, curious, learning, and adaptive.  Together, these natural requirements thus reveal a third and equally compelling imperative for our human health and happiness – our need for individual and community growth.

Our Third Imperative: Growth (Future Health)

Once we have achieved personal autonomy and interdependence in a community environment, we next want this environment to be healthy, nurturing and supportive of the health of its members, in our time and over time.  We need to ensure that our community is not and does not become staid and unhealthy, unresponsive to its members and the changing environment.  We thus find that another natural imperative presents itself in the fact of community, with the same urgency as the first two.  This is the imperative of human growth, which applies to both individuals and communities in their natural pursuit of health and happiness.

To examine this imperative, imagine a person or a community that did not change.  Even imagine the setting to be a happy one, but entirely known to us and without the prospect of growth or change.  As humans, we would soon tire of these circumstances, or would creatively manufacture change within them, a fact that may be counterintuitive but that can be observed empirically.  However idyllic – and our individual lives and communities today are often far from this state – it is in our nomadic and seeking nature as humans that we would inevitably feel stifled and seek to move beyond these or any borders, past anything that hems our curious nature and inhibits our growth.  When we feel constrained, in fact, we often seek novelty instinctively, for its own sake and even at the risk of our health and happiness.  Isn’t the inevitability of change, of temptation, the underlying learning from the parable of the Garden of Eden?  Or from historical studies of human life amidst constraint?  We instinctively pursue growth and change, and when this instinct is frustrated, so often turn to distraction or become aggressive (both signs of an unhealthy and disintegrating self).

As humans, we naturally need growth and change in our lives to be healthy and well.  Without the fact or prospect of growth, we and our communities stagnate physically and emotionally.  We are then apt disengage from our lives and communities as they are and seek change elsewhere, or live with frustration, in other words in lower states of vitality and happiness.  Our instinct for growth and newness is part of who we are as adults and how we evolved to be the dominant species on our planet (and the dominant individuals within our species).  It is through our proclivity for change and our instinct for growth and learning that we explore our world and naturally keep pace with and stay aligned with our environment.  Growth is basic to how we adapt, and to how many other species naturally adapt, even if this process is conscious only in humans.

Our natural human imperative for growth and progressiveness is perhaps most poignantly, though by no means exclusively, revealed in the frequent crises that come to us in the middle of adulthood.  When middle-aged, we are especially apt to feel the pressure and fact not just of our mortality, but also of constraint – declining growth, reduced learning, and fewer new experiences in the world.  This condition can come from a number of sources: excessive commitments or attention paid to fulfilling the social obligations of adulthood, life in staid and unhealthy community, an overly conservative outlook or pattern of life choices, or simply by our allowing our lives to become overly structured and unchanging over the course of time.  But change, and self-confidence in our ability to change, is central to our natural instinct to move and grow, and to our ongoing health and happiness.  The force of growth encourages us, and for us to encourage the people we may lead and influence in mid-life, to remain or to again become flexible, to be adaptable in the face of nature’s forces and our own social environment.

Mid-life crises take many forms, including changes in occupations, changes in pastimes, and changes in relationships.  In the many options of advanced society, sometimes this change is healthy, and sometimes not.  Often, people come to these times living comfortable and even highly desirable lives, from others’ perspectives.  We may be willing to give up much, and much that is certain and desirable, to satisfy our renewed and now urgent imperative for growth.  Our actions may seem illogical on their face and to others, but they are usually understandable, and often quite humane and health-seeking, when viewed from the perspective of the person experiencing stifled growth in the middle of life.  This mid-life growth imperative, like those earlier in life, is a clear sign of our natural human health and well-being, and again reveals the deep link of our happiness to our health.

A community’s need for growth and change is as healthy and important as in our individual life.  The imperative of growth adaptability for the future, as I suggested before, creates a central requirement that all communities and society be committed to the health and vitality of their members, for the present and future, and not simply exist to manage public infrastructure and resolve their private disputes.  The imperative of growth and adaptability is also an ultimate and essential check on excessive community conservatism and constraint on individuals and their autonomy, particularly in the case of constraints on the young.  Where individuals of any age are excessively repressed, and our natural growth and progressiveness are inhibited, the community becomes a rigid, destructive, less adaptable, and thus less healthy force.  It can fail to fulfill the imperative of growth, and that of protecting or fostering individual health and growth, leading either to sudden or slow rebellion or abandonment, but in either case to lower states of community health and well-being.  Always, if there is inadequate growth and openness to change in human life and the greater community, our health and vitality sufferer, and often long before obvious signs of discontent and physical decline. 

Our need to ensure natural growth and adaptability is the counterpoint to our need to prevent and check the potential for destructive individualism – in communities and our own lives.  Taken together, healthy communities thus involve achieving a balance that averts both stagnation and chaos, promoting and harmonizing healthy and autonomous individual life.  Given this seemingly clear and natural imperative and place of growth in human life, once again we are rightly startled by the lack of attention paid to it by many individuals and communities today, notably as we live with the benefit of science and hindsight and their compelling calls to ensure growth.

Inadequate individual and community attention to growth can result from a number of causes: excessive human dependency and a loss of our natural health and curiosity, a general and secondary response to more specific and inadequately mitigated threats of individual excess, or entrenched fear and conservatism (whether fomented by a few, engendered by a past event or future threat, or simply as a pervasive and persistent unnatural sensibility).  Whatever the cause, we frequently can see that nations, communities, organizations, and individual people around the world fail to foster sufficient growth and change in themselves. 

All of these entities so often seem to act, re-act really, from fear of internal disequilibrium than toward external opportunities for new and still healthier states of integration and well-being.  Since this fact is so pervasive today, even as we immerse ourselves in modern novelty and thereby cause unexpected and often unhealthy change, we must conclude that we are all at risk of an unhealthy conservatism, and a related superficiality, in our lives.  This bias is to hold the ground we have gained, or to live in ongoing celebration of our attainment.  We thereby so often overlook the many opportunities we have to enrich the ground we have gained, and to become more healthy, vital, and relevant to the future. 

To return to our example of emphatic and sometimes radical change in the middle of adult life, and perhaps as an obvious lesson for human groups of all kinds, we accept and even expect mid-life crises in individuals today.  But we often do not consider that such events might be unnecessary, and are often largely absent or less emphatic in lives where there is adequate and continuing lifelong growth.  Change and progression can come in measured, forward-looking, and progressive ways, as part of lifelong maturation and adaptation to new learning and experiences, and need not first engender existential crisis.  This is a critical lesson for people and groups of people for all times and ages.  It leads us to question which of our communities and organizations today have adequate, sustainable, and self-sustaining growth, as part of their culture and operating systems, and which face the prospect of crisis at mid-life or some other time, particularly at time of environmental or internal stress.

It is true that we often must struggle to create order in life, as individuals and groups, especially amidst our current conditions of great social complexity and greatly imbalanced and misdirected wealth.  With this struggle, we are thus always in danger of continuing the quest for order and security beyond its natural limit for optimal health and well-being.  We may struggle too vigorously and too long to create order, and then defend that order too artfully and intransigently once it is established, especially when change and adaptation are most needed. 

Integrating Our Imperatives

Estranged from nature and our natural health, we live today in a world of often fleeting or only outward happiness.  Under this surface, feelings of fear, insecurity, and the need to ensure order and protection are frequently quite pervasive.  Some of this emotion is natural and healthy, but much of it results from our often unconscious use of possession and status, in themselves and competitively, as a surrogate for our natural health and well-being. 

Our possessions and stations can engender a defensive mindset, and produce fear and insecurity in us in irrational and unnatural ways, in ways that directly and unnecessarily reduce our health and happiness.  Importantly, our elevated fears and anxieties do not simply afflict and motivate us to often act conservatively and contrary to our health and happiness.  They often equally possess the people we fear, instilling in them an identical fear of us and a motivation to act in reactive and unhealthy ways as well.

This persistent and sometimes escalating spiral of human fear and hostility is well known in our world and history, both between and within communities.  In our time, amidst modern abundance unimagined in earlier times, such cycles are now primarily the result of inherited human social systems, premised on the idea that poverty and hardship are our natural or a threatening condition, and must be guarded against through the competitive accumulation of wealth and power, and the control of others. 

While hardship was our true condition in many early civilizations and is always possible in the extremes of war, epidemic, famines, and other worst cases, it is not in all others, whether in our time or earlier in wild nature.  Outside of these acute conditions, which we now can and are right to guard against, our natural state is normally one of abundance and freedom from hardship, of health and joy, though admittedly without significant possession.  Our natural state does involve some human competition, but only in limited and periodic ways.  In our natural state, as with other social animals, our daily relationships with others are primarily and overwhelmingly cooperative and gregarious.

Unnatural fear can result from and perpetuate excessive self-protective systems and guarded relationships with others.  Fear may overwhelm us as individuals and communities, and keep us from happy life.  The unexamined quest for comfort, for a forestalling of seemingly natural and looming poverty, and for security in our comfort, can paradoxically foster a general sense of scarcity in our lives.  It can even work to create or heighten the threats we seek to diminish, by threatening others with our single-minded quest for power and control, compelling them to act in kind.  Because of this basic flaw in and the antiquated nature of many of our modern social systems and world ideologies, we very often lack adequate ability to learn and change, in individual and collective life.  Owing to this genuine modern inadequacy, we now inhibit our own natural and self-conscious movement to more cooperative and beneficial arrangements in our time,

So many human systems and groups today are far too biased for self-protection and insufficiently forward-looking and adaptive.  They are forged from fear and to forestall threats, not to engender human growth and health during the long peace that natural human life often is – and that it most certainly now can be with foresight and cooperation.  In continuing to live amidst and support these systems, we inhibit our many opportunities for positive change, in large and small ways, everyday of our lives.  We stultify and make oppressive individual and community life, far more than is necessary or healthy, and do not clearly see our abundance or seize the chance for true happiness that is our contemporary and natural condition.  In our conservatism, we also do not work long and hard enough on opportunities for cooperation with others, integrating their views and creating the conditions for peace and enduring abundance for all people.

From this state of affairs, our imperative of individual and community growth takes place amidst fear and is often actively discouraged.  We thereby encourage far more severe and unnecessary crises, in people, communities, and our global society, and at mid-life and other times.  As a study in contrast, we might begin to imagine new systems of human organization – ones that are more adaptable and less threatening to others, creating orderly and principled communities of people, and committed to the advancement of human health and thereby human fulfillment. 

Such systems would reconsider the inevitability and naturalness of poverty.  They might begin from the idea of natural abundance and well-being, and entertain the new human possibility of uninterrupted peace.  They might well be premised on and perpetuate the imperative of continual human change, learning, and improvement.  And the communities result from these new ideas might be very different places, physically and spiritually, than the often guarded and fearful environments where many of us live today, and that have almost universally existed in our recent past, but that were not our natural state and certainly need not be our future state. 

With new systems and ideas of human organization, our human civilization could become a place, not of self-perpetuating feelings of fear and scarcity, but of increasing health and emotional security.  With an overriding focus on promoting our common natural health and human vitality, the result might be a diversity of safe, protected communities where all three of our imperatives of human life could be fully met.  Autonomous individuals would bring themselves fully to their lives, community, and global society, understanding our universal need for interdependence and growth.  Freed from unnatural cycles of competition for comfort and control, the needs of the collective and those the individual could be better balanced, though perhaps never perfectly and always in active and evolving ways. 

Likely, in new social systems dedicated to our health and well-being, there would be far greater focus on cooperation, globally and locally.  There likely would be a move to create relative material equality among people and clear principles guiding individual and community conduct, promoting general security and more open life.  But there would perhaps be even greater human freedom than today, with resources no longer needed to serve fears and insecurity redirected to the areas that most lead to human fulfillment – those that foster natural human curiosity, learning, nurturing, and innovation. 

If sustained, a new cycle of human progress would naturally emerge and become our future, fostering material and emotional abundance and far greater feelings of security.  Communities would remain aware, perhaps deeply aware, of our past and the threats that can come from an unmanaged environment, especially when communities become isolated, fearful and guarded, or ill-adapted to the ever changing realities of our larger environment.  With prudence, we might all look to the future with hope and openness, amidst and even because of our pragmatism and constructiveness. 

For me, places from this future civilization seem now ready to exist.  By this, I mean today, in our time, in our individual lives and in new and revitalized communities and nations.  I mean in our special time in history, with our material abundance and our advanced and rapidly evolving technology, and amidst our scientific awakening and discovery of our true human place and state in the natural world.  And I mean after millennia of misunderstanding ourselves and the nature of our own health and happiness, millennia of life impoverished by limiting and self-perpetuating cycles of fear and hostility.  

These new places of the future even seem actively prepared and waiting for us to go to them.  They already may exist, amidst and in spite of our modern landscape.  They already may be formed, through our modern knowledge and opportunities for new choices that leverage science and the science of our well-being.  These places of the future seem ready to contain us and allow us to live new, extraordinary, and more artful lives, even as they require constructiveness and prudence from us too, now especially and probably in all times. 

In truth, we can each now choose to redirect our energy and focus in new ways, to live from science rather than inherited ideas, to live in natural abundance rather than fear and insecurity, to have less and be far happier, in our lives and communities and amidst our modernity.  We all already can live in the future – in new, healthier, and larger ways.

I call these now waiting places, HumanaNatura, but you may give them another name.  If you have re-discovered your natural health and its link to our natural happiness, then you understand our own natural human link to the world and one another in a new and unprecedented way.  You also know that nature presents us with three imperatives for lasting natural health and compelling human life, in our time and in all times, and for you and for us all. 

Little else is needed, and enduring life awaits.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.

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